Things have definitely changed since Bill Clinton was president. Back then, we were told that adultery didn’t matter, “everybody did it,” and that even acts of perjury didn’t matter if the subject being lied about under oath was sex. Anybody who thought differently was a puritanical right-winger engaged in a borderline criminal conspiracy to bring down the president.
But recently we’ve been employing a very different standard for politicians in both parties. The mighty Eliot Spitzer was brought down by his infidelity and dalliances with hookers. John Edwards’ affair has destroyed his reputation and whatever remained of his political career. John Ensign resigned his Senate leadership position and is almost certainly out of the running for 2012. Ditto Mark Sanford, who is no longer chairman of the Republican Governors Association and is highly unlikely to run for president.
Obviously, there were additional factors at play in each of these cases. With Spitzer, it was the illegal act of prostitution. Edwards’ wife had cancer and their marriage played a prominent role in his 2008 presidential campaign. Ensign might have helped the husband of the woman he had an affair with secure employment. Sanford left the state he governed and was out of the country for days.
Nobody, as far as I can tell, said that their behavior was understandable or not a matter of public concern because their indiscretions were sexual in nature. One wonders how Bill Clinton would have fared in such a political climate.
UPDATE: There’s an interesting discussion of what it takes for a politician to survive a sex scandal over at the New York Times‘ website. There are still quite a few survivors even now.